Works by Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Roger Doyle

The Crash Ensemble, Roger Doyle, Brian O'Huiggin, Ian McDonnell, Julie Feeney

Smock Alley Theatre/Project Arts Centre, 24 & 25 October 2009 4 stars

Crash EnsembleDEAF – the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival – is in its eighth year. This year's festival is the biggest so far, swelling all over the city like water from an overflowing pot. Initially begun as a festival focussing on underground dance and experimental music, DEAF's scope has over its short existence grown to take in other genres: contemporary classical, noise, electronic rock, free improvisation, and anything of interest hitchhiking the lines between these few. The result is a festival that has justifiable claim to being one of the most forward thinking of its type, habitually throwing much of interest into the face of the unsuspecting Dublin passer-by.

Last weekend saw two concerts given by the Crash Ensemble on successive nights. Crash are undoubtedly Ireland's foremost contemporary music outfit, their concerts always ones to look forward to on the musical calendar. This is thanks in part to a policy of adventurous programming, which has them looking into often-unvisited areas of contemporary music. Recent times have seen Crash collaborate with figures from other genres of music, such as traditional Irish sean-nós singer Iarla Ò Lionáird and ex-Virgin Prune Gavin Friday.

Another hallmark of their output is events of a mixed-media nature. Saturday night's concert was typical in this respect, with the second half taken up by a screening of the film Koyaanisqatsi (which of course features a soundtrack by Philip Glass). Given that this is a film rarely glimpsed in public screenings it was an additional draw to add to the performed music, and the audience in attendance were a mix of contemporary classical fans, electronic music fans and those with an interest in film. The Crash Ensemble's programming in this way can in a rare way be seen to successfully attract a public for contemporary classical music, drawing those who might not otherwise be interested in such music. And to the extent that they consistently attract a large audience for contemporary classical concerts – Saturday's concert was sold out, with a crowd outside the venue hoping for cancellation tickets – Crash's outlook is exemplary and to be commended.

With the event given the title 'Minimal', as well as the Koyaanisqatsi screening it featured three works by Steve Reich performed live. The event was held in Smock Alley Theatre, an historical venue in Dublin's cultural history, which these days has the appearance of a converted church. The performance space was dimly lit, expansive and atmospheric with a relaxed ambience. Introducing the proceedings, Donnacha Dennehy, Crash's founder and artistic director, invited the audience to explore the space and to take different positions relative to wherever the music was being performed (three different spots in the auditorium). The free bar was certainly an oft-explored area for some – clinking bottles and beer-grasping figures walking past the front of the stage were an unfortunate feature throughout. But it didn't much take away from the concert as a whole.

ReichReich's Pendulum Music, an early piece by the composer from 1968, opened things. The work is written for four microphones suspended by their leads from a crossbar. Once let go of they swing over and back across their speakers, making feedback noises every time they swing past, gradually slowing to a halt over a duration of ten minutes. The effect is more disturbing than the usual Reich fare – the feedback noises coming from each speaker were like the wails of four ghosts being transmitted from some aetherial plane and picked up through a radio – and the piece is all the better for it.

This was followed by the more recent Cello Counterpoint, performed by Kate Ellis. After hearing her performance of this work at the Living Music Festival in Dublin a few years back, Reich remarked it the best he had ever heard. A healthy balance of charge and precision was thus assured in Ellis's performance – though the blandness of the music inevitably shone through, like a picture of a lighthouse on the wall of a closed-plan office.

Last of the Reich pieces was Four Organs. This work is boring in a different way: not through sterility of harmonic language, but through paucity of event. The four organs of the title, accompanied by a percussionist keeping a steady pulse on a maraca, gradually go out of phase with each other in elaborating the extension of a dominant eleventh chord. Despite a shaky performance by one of the organists, the rendition was overall a good one, and brought out the best from the limited piece. The upper notes of the chord, sustained, blossomed from the amplifiers out into the acoustic of the hall and into the ears.

The second concert by the Crash Ensemble was held on Sunday night at the Project Arts Centre, and paid special tribute to the music of Roger Doyle, who recently reached the age of sixty. Doyle is one of those composers frequently referred to as 'legendary' – as if he had been born with two heads, or had commanded an army of giants in the Hungarian highlands in the Middle Ages. Nothing so fanciful in reality; although his taste for storytelling, alongside the admix of serious craft and humour that characterises his music, makes Doyle a refreshing change from the more usual po-faced self-seriousness of contemporary composers.

Roger DoyleThe epithet 'legendary' arises from the fact that Doyle was the first composer in Ireland to write electro-acoustic music. And it is electronic music that his name mostly conjures up (he has been the recipient of prizes in this area and is well known internationally in the field). These days he is looked up to by all those acquainted with the area in Ireland, sometimes (like in the programme) being referred to as the Godfather of electronic music in Ireland. His recent signing to Psychonavigation Records, an Irish label specialising in underground electronica, bespeaks this regard.

The night's programme was a many-hued mixed bag. With different forces required for each piece, the first half of the concert saw five short works performed. Standouts were Under the Green Time ('an image of Ireland without the sweet Celtic wrapping') for uilleann pipes and electronic tape, a gratingly sweet squall exploring the hitherto unremarked ground between traditional Irish and contemporary industrial music (performed by Brian O’Huiginn); Cool Steel Army for piano and laptop percussion, which sounded like a cross between Michael Nyman and Autechre’s 'Second Bad Vibel', periodic blasts of static giving heft to moody piano arpeggiation (performed by Doyle himself alongside Ian McDonnell); and Passades No. 6, an electro-acoustic work that was played over spacialised speakers to the apposite accompaniment of a black and white animated film lulling the viewer through hypnagogic abstractions.

A larger and enjoyably bizarre work took up the second half of the concert. The Room in the Tower is a recent work which Doyle refers to as a 'cinema for the ear', and which comes across like a live radio play. A small ensemble took to a darkened stage and played alongside a narrative with sound effects projected over the venue’s speakers. The story was adapted by Carlo Gebler from a 1912 short story of E. F. Benson, and was narrated by a male voice. The voice told of a terrifying recurring dream in which he visited a country house, met with its toff inhabitants, and ending up having to sleep in a room in a creepy tower. Piano, clarinet, cello, double bass and guitar were joined onstage by Irish singer-songwriter Julie Feeney, who wafted in halfway through the work to sing a song, then snuck off again before making a spectral reappearance later in the work. The whole thing was enjoyable and unnerving, although Feeney's performance took away from the whole. It was puzzling that such a vocally unaccomplished singer should be thought suitable for the work, which would have benefited from someone with a stronger voice.

DEAF continues until 31 October.

By Liam Cagney

Photo: Crash Ensemble by Ros Kavanagh; Roger Doyle by Eugene Langan (Contemporary Music Centre Ireland)


Related articles:

CD review: Philip Glass, Koyaanisqatsi
Concert review: Philip Glass Ensemble at the Barbican
Concert review: Works by Steve Reich at the Edinburgh Festival 2008